To DC or not to DC, that always seems to be the question

With admissions decisions now available from Fletcher and most peer institutions, an annual theme is beginning to bubble up in our conversations with many admitted applicants. The importance of location in the decision-making process varies some from applicant to applicant, but nearly all candidates will at some point read, hear, or otherwise come across the conventional wisdom that one simply must go to school in Washington, DC to have a chance at achieving career goals in any number of sectors. Let’s examine this a bit.

The surface logic is pretty self-evident. The US federal bureaucracy, and its accretion disk of private contractors, consultancies, councils, centers, NGOs, think tanks, institutes, foundations, and secretive cabals is centered in DC. Many candidates envision unique networking, internship, or other proximity-to-power opportunities available only to inside-the-beltway students. This is a perfectly cromulent impulse, and for some candidates it will lead to a program that’s a good fit. It can also be a bit reductive, though, and there are plenty of reasons prospective students are well-served by digging a bit deeper, and considering what attributes of a school itself might make it a good fit, regardless of geography.

I’ve already mentioned “fit” a couple of times here because it underpins most of the advice I give to prospective students. In spite of what you may hear from a variety of people and publications, there is no objectively “best” school out there, not at any level of study nor discipline. There maybe be a best school or handful of schools for you, though, and the fault lines separating those from the rest of the pack may be defined by curriculum, career goals, student life, finances, family considerations, and yes, location. How might location specifically affect your experience?

Let’s start with internships, often considered the currency of the professional development marketplace. Most international affairs programs, including Fletcher, recommend internships as a way to gain exposure to a new field, to further your expertise in a familiar field, or to expand your network and general knowledge of a particular professional community. If “internships = good,” then “more internships = better,” right? By this metric, a DC location may appear to trump all other considerations; isn’t it a necessary precursor to cracking into the ______ industry?

Not necessarily. First, Fletcher students (and those of most other non-DC schools) can and do pursue in-semester internships both locally and virtually, though it’s more common to dedicate summer break to this end. Given the amount of potential involvements any self-respecting international affairs program will throw your way, such as student organizations, research and publication opportunities, conferences, lectures, career development events, competitions, social activities, and part-time work (in addition to, y’know, classes), the typical amount of time you can expect to dedicate to an in-semester internship is likely to be around ten to twelve hours per week, at most. During your two or three hour shift at the Very Important Policy Institute, you might indeed be contributing to Very Important Policy Memos and participating in Very Important Policy Meetings. You might also be making copies.

I bring this up not to disparage the idea of in-semester internships, but to highlight an important reality that I often see go underappreciated: everything to which you choose to dedicate time during the semester will come at the opportunity cost of something else that you can’t do. You simply will not be able to do everything that appeals to you, or even most of it. Just too many options, not enough hours in the day, etc. That ten-to-twelve-hour-a-week internship – maybe great, maybe a bit of a bust, maybe something in between – is ten to twelve hours that you won’t be at school. That’s ten to twelve hours of lectures you can’t attend, career events you have to pass up, time blocks in which you aren’t available to meet with your project group, office hours you can’t go to, and student group meetings and events you can’t be a part of. A version of this dynamic may also be true in many part-time programs, or those offering classes mainly at night so that students can work or intern full-time during the day. While the prospect of earning a salary and gaining experience while simultaneously going to school has definite upsides, it also greatly limits the amount of time you’ll be present in your school community. After working an eight-hour day, then spending as much as three to five hours a night in classes, there’s not much time left for anything else.

This is what we’re talking about with our regular references to “the Fletcher community.” Everything listed above is an important strand in a strong community fabric. The fewer strands to which you’re around to contribute, the thinner that fabric will be and the less useful it will become over time. One of the main reasons that Fletcherites are so into Fletcher is that¬†they spend a lot of time here with each other, building relationships. That strong fabric later leads our alumni to make professional introductions, answer emails, return phone calls, meet for coffee, and hire Fletcher students as interns and employees. It’s the reason that it’s more common for Fletcher students to focus on summer break for internships (many of which are indeed DC-based); the opportunity costs of the in-semester option make waiting until you’re available full-time for nearly four months in the summer a pretty enticing alternative. It’s also more likely, on average, that you’ll end up doing some substantive work rather than making sure the kitchen nook is stocked with K-cups.

There are ways in which a bit of distance can actually be advantageous. I’ve repeatedly heard students mention how glad they are to have spent some time away from DC during school, to diversify their perspectives and gain some remove from what can come to seem like a professional and intellectual bubble, before heading or returning there after graduation. Another thing to consider is the number and variety of international careers students pursue, to which you could be less exposed in an environment in which you don’t see much of your classmates outside the classroom, or in which most students are assumed to be working toward beltway-bound professional futures. Finding a couch to surf in DC isn’t too hard for many people, IR-graduates or not. Imagine being able to say the same for Brussels, Geneva, Seoul, Tokyo, London, Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai, Nairobi, New Delhi, Bangkok, Sao Paulo, Kigali, Mexico City, Athens, Mumbai, Bogota, and Shanghai.

I’ve written previously about thinking of grad school as an investment, and it’s up to each applicant to determine to what degree they want that investment to be in a school or program itself rather than where it happens to be located, in cases where those priorities diverge. For some candidates, heading to DC for school is indeed the right option, but any suggestion that this is axiomatically true for everyone is, as Joe Biden would say, malarkey. No program can guarantee a specific outcome for any student, and there is no single path to success. Be wary of any implication to the contrary.

 

 

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